‘Why challenging high performers is important and what we can do’ By Deborah Eyre

Providing challenge for top performers in the classroom is one of the most difficult and long standing problems in British education. Whilst some schools do really well, they remain the minority.

When it comes to gifted/more able your school is likely to be in one of the following categories:

  • Don’t believe in it and hence make no special provision as a result
  • Have a cohort of students identified as gifted or more able – or a similar term – and offer them special opportunities
  • Systematically and purposefully make advanced learning opportunities available in class and in enrichment, and offer them regularly to all or most students.

Generally most schools in England are in the first or second categories, whilst most of the top performing countries in the OECD league tables are in the third. Interesting!

We know that it is important to society, to the economy and to the individual that we challenge those who find learning easy rather than allow them to underachieve, and mark time whilst others catch up. Yet – we don’t do it because (a) we don’t think it is a priority or (b) we don’t really know how to. Systematically reviewing the literature in 2009[1] it became clear that these are universal problems and found in many countries.

So if we want to do better we have to change how we approach this.

Traditionally, work on the more able/gifted has involved identifying a cohort and making special provision for it, but the research shows this is increasingly problematic.

  • Definitions of giftedness have fragmented over time and vary widely, so when you try to identify students to create a cohort it’s hard to know what you are identifying and hence no reliable identification methods have emerged.
  • Those who are identified are given access to special opportunities and generally benefit. Those who are not in the identified cohort do equally well if given the same opportunities. So why are they not getting them?
  • Gifted cohorts across the world have been found to be biased in favour of the affluent middle class. No matter how hard people try this remains the case. Just like in England.

So if opportunities are the important factor, then creating them is the priority. What do good advanced learning opportunities look like? How can we make them widely available? Key players in this field alongside my own writings are Jo Renzulli, Bruce Shore, Joyce Van Tassel Baska and Albert Zeigler. Look out for their work.

Many teachers use Bloom’s taxonomy yet this is over 50 years old. Fresh approaches have bettered and superseded it. My new organisation High Performance Learning[2] (www.highperformancelearning.co.uk) makes use of these. It focuses on advanced learning and systematically building intelligence using 30 research derived competencies that all successful people demonstrate. These relate to developing cognition and also developing the values, attitudes and attributes that top performers need.

If your school wants to do better, then ask yourself these questions:

  • Are we confident about what advanced learning looks like?
  • Do we offer it in our school?
  • How regularly and to whom?
  • Could we improve the frequency with which we offer this or even make it part of our DNA?

Recently Sir Michael Wishaw painted a familiar picture of underachievement for the most able in secondary schools – especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. He is getting bullish in his final months as HMCI – suggesting sanctions be applied to schools that consistently fail their brightest children.

Maybe now is the time to focus more directly on advanced learning in your classroom and your school and stop leaving the creation of advanced performers to chance.

Professor Deborah Eyre is Founder, High Performance Learning, and a NET Leading Thinker

[1] Eyre, D. (Ed.) (2009) Major Themes in Gifted Education (4 Volumes). Routledge: London

[2] Eyre, D. (2016) High Performance Learning: How To Become A World Class School. Routledge: London


THE COLLEGE OF TEACHING: a defining moment for the teaching profession? By Derek Bell

On the afternoon of the 25th May I watched as HRH Prince Philip took the original 1846 Royal Charter setting up the College of Preceptors (with its 1998 supplement) from The President of The College of Teachers and handed it to the first Chair of the Chartered College of Teaching.

You may consider this to be a trivial piece of ceremony of relatively little consequence. Yet in its own way it could be a defining moment in the history of the teaching profession in England and, perhaps, beyond. Four years ago the Education Select Committee recommended establishing “a new, member-driven College of Teaching, along the lines of the Royal Colleges and Chartered Institutions in other professions.”

Since then several groups of people, including many classroom teachers and heads, have worked extremely hard in order to lay the foundations for such a body – the completion of which was formally and publically acknowledged in that moment. Although there are still some technicalities to be completed, this was the point at which the new Chartered College of Teaching emerged as a body in its own right.

Whilst no one, least of all the new board of Trustees, underestimates the challenges ahead, that moment of transfer also acted as a reminder of how deep rooted the foundations of the new Chartered College of Teaching actually are. Not only does the Royal Charter recognise 170 years of history it also embodies values and aspirations of, and for, the teaching profession which are still relevant today.

Although the language of the document may seem strange, key phrases refer to; promoting sound learning”, “advancing the interests of education” and “affording facilities to the Teacher for the acquiring of a sound knowledge of his [/her] Profession”. I would suggest that these fundamental ideas remain at the heart of the teaching profession today. Bearing in mind that in 1846 there was little or no provision for training teachers, the vision of those individuals who came together to found the College was crucial and in many ways underpinned the setting up of teacher education (both initial training and continuing professional development) which exists today.

There is much to thank the original College for but unfortunately over the years it has become overwhelmed by wider developments, not least the increasingly onerous involvement of Government in the day to day activities of teachers and their schools.

Thus that moment on 25th May 2016, is also a challenge and opportunity for teachers everywhere to reshape their profession so that it is fit for the 21st Century. The new Chartered College of Teaching, under its revised Royal Charter, has the potential to lead this development towards increasing and genuine professional autonomy for teaching and teachers.

It can’t be emphasised too strongly that this will take time but progress is being made. Visit http://www.claimyourcollege.org/the-colleges-history/ for a full account of developments so far.

Confirmation of seed-funding of £5 million, staged over 5 years, in the government white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, meant that it was possible for the Trustees to push ahead with a range of key activities including the appointment of the first Chief Executive which has just been advertised. They have also been working on details of membership and the activities the college will undertake over the next few years. Underpinning all college activities is the key principle that developments should be based on evidence and reflect the views of teachers.

Initiatives such as The Big Staff Meeting, held at the beginning of 2016 will continue to be used to inform the work of the college both nationally and regionally. In the autumn, the new Chartered College of Teaching website will replace the current http://www.claimyourcollege.org/ and events will be held including The Big Summit designed to provide a forum for mobilising knowledge and sharing evidence-based practice.

Perhaps more importantly this autumn will see the publication of a manifesto setting out plans for the new College in more detail. Currently (June 2016) details are under discussion but there are three major themes, among others, I would hope to see included in some form.

  • An emphasis on the real strengths of existing teachers and their practice, highlighting not just examples of excellent practice but the quality and commitment of the everyday practice demonstrated by the majority of teachers, headteachers and teaching assistants across the country. Gaining wider recognition for existing good practice would provide a sound basis on which to raise the status of the teaching profession.
  • The importance of building a genuine professional community which, over time, establishes its autonomy and independence becoming a leading body on matters of teaching and learning. In particular, it is important that this community is fully inclusive not only with regard to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or background, but also to the many individuals who may have left the classroom in order to make valuable contributions to teaching, learning and education in different capacities. Clearly the majority of members of the college will and should be classroom teachers but the new College needs to retain the support, goodwill and contributions of this wider group of individuals – it cannot have too many advocates.
  • The need for high quality professional education, both initial training and career long CPD. The mark of a profession is that it is self-improving both as a body and as individuals within that body. The new College must have things to say and do with regard to training and development, influencing (and ultimately controlling) aspects such as standards, content, duration and expectations. Initial training must be a requirement and there should be an entitlement to ongoing CPD.


To this needs to be added the responsibility of ensuring appropriate opportunities are available and that they are taken up. If used effectively the introduction of an integrated Chartered Teacher scheme will provide the necessary recognition for all teachers who are well trained, keep up to date and, as a true professional, continue to improve and share their practice throughout their career.

Setting up the new College will not of itself bring about a transformation of the teaching profession or education more widely. However, it can provide a vehicle which can over time bring about change. Ultimately in order to meet aspirations it requires the contributions and support of teachers where ever they work.

Change will not happen overnight but a start has been made.

Perhaps, at this early stage of the new College’s development, as teachers and others involved in education, we should (with apologies to John F Kennedy) be asking not what our College can do for me but asking what can I do for our College – and through it the quality of teaching and learning for all our young people.

Professor Derek Bell, having worked in schools and universities as a teacher and researcher, was formerly Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust, and was Chief Executive of the Association for Science Education for seven years. He has carried out a wide range of consultancies in the UK and overseas and been a member of advisory/expert panels. He is Director of Learnus, a research associate at UCL Institute of Education and a NET Leading Thinker.

Affordable leadership for a small secondary school by Melanie Saunders

Does size matter?

Having spent some time looking at how a small secondary school can afford to deliver a curriculum which is both compliant and engaging in the current trying financial conditions, the thing that becomes most apparent isn’t the cost of staffing the curriculum. It’s the cost of leading it.

There is a reluctance to break away from the usual pattern of subject leaders and pastoral structures which has been deployed in secondary schools of all sizes for a generation, and despite the pressure this places on the budget of a small school.

Does a 600 place secondary school really need to retain the lines of accountability and leadership structures of a 1,500 place secondary school, or might it learn from the far slimmer structure of similar sized primary schools? Secondary schools typically spend around a third of their staffing budget on leadership at all levels. Primary schools about half of that.

To take one example: the lowest funded four-form entry secondary school in Hampshire receives an annual budget of £2,895,000. On the basis that 75% of this is spent on staffing, the staffing budget would amount to £2,171.250. Zero based budgeting suggests that a compliant curriculum with limited options for 600 pupils can be delivered for little more than half this amount. This draws into question the proportion of staff spend that is devoted to activities other than teaching.

The leadership model for a secondary school has remained largely unchanged since the establishment of comprehensive schools in the 1960s, although even this model was fundamentally taken from the way in which public schools were run. This design requires a headmaster/headmistress who appoints deputies to whom responsibilities can be devolved. Schools then establish their preferred pastoral system led by house or year heads, and a series of academic subject leaders.

Even if this remained the most sensible model for a school today of 1,500 students, is it sustainable, or desirable, for a school a third of that size? Since the core responsibility of a school is to ensure the highest quality learning and teaching, this raises four questions for a headteacher to consider:

  • How much leadership do my teachers need?
  • What sort of leadership will improve pupil outcomes?
  • What, exactly, are middle leaders leading?
  • What leadership structure represents best value for money?


How is headteacher time spent?

The National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers describe the role of headship in 144 words:

Headteachers occupy an influential position in society and shape the teaching profession. They are the lead professionals and significant role models within the communities they serve. The values and ambitions of headteachers determine the achievements of schools. They are accountable for the education of current and future generations of children. Their leadership has a decisive impact on the quality of teaching and pupils’ achievements in the nation’s classrooms. Headteachers lead by example the professional conduct and practice of teachers in a way that minimises unnecessary workload and leaves room for high quality continuous professional development for staff. They secure a climate for the exemplary behaviour of pupils. They set standards and expectations for high academic standards within and beyond their own schools, recognising differences and respecting cultural diversity within contemporary Britain. Headteachers, together with those responsible for governance, are the guardians of the nation’s schools. (January 2015)


The leadership of headteachers is demonstrably the defining factor in school success, notably because he/she determines the priorities and the focus for all the teaching and non-teaching staff in the school, and ensures that the outcomes achieved by pupils is the thing of paramount importance. Clearly, based upon the description above, the headteacher is going to need help in translating that vision into reality and ensuring that practice is consistent. Does this, however, require a team of heads of department and a team of pastoral heads?

In December 2012 the National College for School Leadership published ‘Review of the School Leadership Landscape’ which concluded that the three top concerns for school leaders were:

  • Finance
  • Ofsted
  • Pupil outcomes

However, the same review concluded that the three top skills school leaders said they needed were:

  • Strategies for closing attainment gaps
  • Leading curriculum change
  • Modelling excellence in leading teaching and learning


There is a mismatch here which suggests that school leaders need to spend more of their time doing the things they know make the biggest difference, and less time on the things they worry most about.

If headteachers dealt with their number one worry by employing the expertise they need to manage financial planning in the form of a Business Manager, either of their own or across their MAT, they would be able to focus on their number one priority: closing attainment gaps. This might prompt a different approach to leadership and one which has the potential to address their second biggest worry: Ofsted success.

Although some approaches to pedagogy are demonstrably better suited for some types of learning, leadership of learning and modelling the best teaching is not, on the whole, subject specific – as is demonstrated by the approach to learning taken in large, successful primary schools. Good teachers respond flexibly to the needs of their learners and apply a variety of approaches and methodologies. Schools might want to review the role and impact of subject heads and consider whether the administrative aspects of this role could be carried out more comprehensively and less expensively than by paying a leadership premium.

The aspects of the role concerned with teacher performance and pupil progress are the stuff of leadership, but many subject areas in small schools have only one team member, and some are only managing themselves. Should the powerhouse of middle leadership reside in a large number of small fiefdoms, or in two or three senior teaching and learning leads informed by subject specific knowledge from leading teachers in classrooms?

Pastoral leadership often focusses on the management of behaviour and school leaders recognise that poor behaviour is frequently generated by poor teaching and inadequate learning. Less variation and inconsistency between subject expectations and the quality of teaching has the potential to improve behaviour and make intervention less frequent, thus reducing the need for several pastoral leads.


Is it possible, therefore, to consider that the approach to leadership, particularly in a small school, might move:

From a model which provides a clear hierarchy but ties up significant resource in middle leadership, where middle leaders in singleton departments with no staff responsibilities have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning across the school and limited access to subject debate or the sharing of pedagogical practice. A model where tackling inconsistency and mission creep is an on-going struggle.

To a model where the headteacher and his/her deputies focus all staff on the quality of pedagogy through the work of two or three highly skilled teaching and learning leads, thereby ensuring that teaching, learning and assessment inform good behaviour and progress for all students and groups of students. A model where leading teachers advise on and promulgate subject specific pedagogy but the whole school is responsible for consistent and pupil-focussed practice.

What sort of leadership can your school afford?

Melanie Saunders was recently Head of Education Strategy for Hampshire County Council and is now an independent consultant.

A new teaching and learning framework by Keith Grainger

Keith Grainger writes about Garth Hill College’s journey in developing a new teaching and learning framework, and how the thinking behind it and the way in which it is used is more important than the framework itself.

One key principle that guided us in forming a new teaching and learning framework came from an acceptance that pupils progress well over time when teachers execute all of the basics well and provide a strong learning experience, accurately and consistently, day in, day out. Thus, learning and progress over time should determine the quality of teaching provision, not a snapshot lesson observation.

It follows that we should no longer attempt to grade individual lessons, but rather seek substantial evidence of progress and learning over time. Such evidence might include scrutinising pupils’ written work, listening to their views and explanations of their learning, and analysing and reviewing their outcomes in tests and examinations. All things that help us form a truer picture and a more meaningful assessment on the quality of teaching and, importantly, what is going on in the classroom when observers are not there.

Can there be a school leader who has not observed a colleague that ‘pulled it out of the bag’, or at least put a little gilding on the lily, because they knew visitors were coming? For years we have appraised colleagues on the back of one, or at best a few, observations. No longer should this be the case. This ‘cup final’ experience was often stressful, unhelpful (unless your line manager liked your lesson and graded you well – in which case it was at least good for morale if not for professional development), and was sometimes meaningless.

As classroom observers, we seek evidence, but should be under no illusion that we can gather all. The problem with any teaching and learning framework, including our own, is that it is a model. The problem with models is that although they can be useful, models are invariably misleading and can be harmful. For example there can be a tendency to conform to the model, or worse, to what people perceive to be the model. Models also fail to take account of silent evidence or the ‘dark matter’ in the classroom. These are the things that are hard to see, but contribute to the seemingly ‘unfailing luck’ that some teachers appear to have (and our pupils benefit from) with great outcomes year in, year out.

So learning and progress over time is a limiting judgement on the quality of teaching. Whatever ‘judgement’ the observer might be tempted to make in twenty or thirty minutes, this should be secondary to the outcomes of those pupils in that class over a considerable period of time. This more rounded judgement will at least take into account the effect of the silent evidence even if we do not know what that is!

Strip back lesson observations

As well as ending the practice of grading individual lessons, we should consider stripping back the process of observation and freeing colleagues a little from the ponderous and time consuming approach to reporting observations and feedback. This might include immaculately planned and detailed learning review schedules (sometimes issued in advance), pre-arranged observation appointments and grandiose observation report forms. On top of all this, colleagues often struggle to find yet more time for the feedback meeting.

We should question how far this bureaucracy is contributing to school improvement. It may actively discourage classroom observation on occasion – an extra burden of workload in the day-to-day whirlwind of school leadership. Our new College framework no longer requires pre-arranged appointments, form filling or formal feedback sessions (unless you really want to) and this is where our work in trialling ‘spot coaching’ has also come into its own. As a result, we are spending more time observing each other, sharing practice and engaging in meaningful professional dialogue. These things should be an entitlement of every teacher’s working week.

Teaching and learning frameworks should not have regard for basics or ‘non-negotiables’. Such elementary things should be the expectation and anything less unacceptable. Provision cannot be at least good without these ‘givens’. If books are not being marked as they should, if home learning is not being set that adds to the learning, if the teacher’s expectations are low, then these are basic management issues. Excellence should be the standard, and for all colleagues irrespective of career stage. This is a realistic aspiration for colleagues new to the profession when it is backed up with top quality professional mentoring, coaching, support and development.

The best games have a set of rules that you seldom refer to

A good framework is succinct and concise, easily digested by colleagues and, above all, useful. The best games have a set of rules that you seldom need to refer to. Our first College drafts were quite wordy. In mid-development, a senior colleague and I were shown a very fine version of another framework that ran to a little over 40 words. We were suitably embarrassed and put efforts into boiling down our version further still. Our framework is better for it. However, we decided not to edit out the following sentence from the final version: ‘The teacher’s scholarship and habitual willingness to critically engage and reflect on their own teaching practice develops their expertise and craft as a teacher.’ Conveying this vital message to all our colleagues is too important. Learning is the job.

It is not what you have got, but how well you use it.   A useful teaching and learning framework is one thing, but good learning in context enables our colleagues to develop and become great teachers. Teachers need to engage in learning about their practice in the setting in which they actually work, observing and being observed in the classroom. More frequent observation, teaching coaches, lesson observation cameras and spot coaching enable practitioners to stay close to what the Greeks called ‘techne’ – the development of craft.

Spot coaching is a form of specialist coaching. Purposeful feedback provided in the instant gives colleagues the chance to respond there and then. It is developmental and experiential. Through trial and error the chances of moving practice forward increase considerably. It is learning in context.

Do no harm?

The only thing necessary for the triumph of mediocrity in the classroom is for good men and women to do nothing.

Though we recognise that sometimes doing nothing is preferable to doing something potentially harmful, our duty as leaders of learning is a duty first to pupils – to develop others’ practice. We do not want to do something that will make colleagues feel uncomfortable or incompetent in front of the pupils, but you cannot build trust by promising that no one is going to be unsettled. Plenty of colleagues have been hurt under the old way of doing things. Spending more time with each other in the classroom, without judgement, will surely build more trust.

Appeles of Kos, a renowned painter of Ancient Greece, only created the perfect representation of foam drooling from the mouth of the horse he was painting when he threw his cleaning sponge at the painting in disgust at his repeated failed attempts. Appeles also practised every day. I believe that our new teaching and learning framework creates the right conditions for practice, as well as for a little more spontaneity and serendipity – essential traits in the developing practitioner.

We want colleagues to be confident enough to take risks, digress more, throw a few metaphorical sponges in the classroom, including when spurred on by the interventions of colleagues. We want our colleagues to use the job itself as the subject of their learning and professional discovery – an essential guiding principle for the genuine learning organisation. We want our new framework not to help colleagues decide what they are or where they are, but rather what they can become.

Keith Grainger is Principal of Garth Hill College, Bracknell.

Correspondence to k-grainger@garthhillcollege.com

10,000 hours: what makes a great teacher? By Roy Blatchford

Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Thomas More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.

 A Man for all Seasons

What makes anyone accomplished at anything? Influential psychologist Anders Ericsson and polemicist Malcolm Gladwell tell us that 10,000 hours of purposeful practice are necessary to create real proficiency – and maybe the platform for stand-out excellence.

Think The Silver Beatles playing the clubs of Hamburg; Lewis Hamilton, aged six, driving go-karts; the young Venus Williams on Palm Beach tennis courts; Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in their formative ‘garage years’ – each driven by different motives, investing hours and hours to perfect what later became their greatness.

Take a regular classroom teacher, teaching 1,000 lessons a year. That’s 10,000 in a decade. At a careful estimate, over several decades I have taught about 30,000 sessions to learners of all ages. And in various guises, I have been an ‘observer’ in just on 10,000 classrooms during the past fifteen years.

What do I experience when I am in the presence of an accomplished teacher, irrespective of context and location: from Newcastle to New York, Geneva to Pune, Riyadh to Kuala Belait? Reflecting on vivid examples, I identify ten prevalent features in the cocktail, variously distilled.


  1. Knowledge No teacher can survive without the fount of knowledge which lies at the core of their everyday practice. Good teachers have an innate generosity to want to share what they know. For the skilled early years’ practitioner that knowledge lies in a deep understanding of how young children grow, and how best to intervene or draw back when children are developing their independent learning habits. For the teacher of an IB French class studying Albert Camus, it is the teacher’s facility to cross-reference Sartre, Gide or Heidegger to open up an appreciation of existentialism. The skilled teacher has knowledge effortlessly rising out of them like sap from a tree – and keeps practising.
  1. Craft In many walks of life a ‘craftsman’ is revered for her or his well-honed skills, whether cooking, sculpting or operating medically. The craft of the classroom involves its own special blend: skilled configuration of the classroom and management of pupils; time creatively orchestrated; ‘less is more’ lesson planning; judicious harnessing of resources; intelligent questioning and thoughtful feedback; that balance of critique and worthy praise; wise promotion of mastery, scholarship and enquiry. The reflective practitioner commands the classroom, physically and intellectually.
  1. Passion Love of being in a classroom with pupils is a pre-requisite for accomplished teachers, joyfully sharing those personal and professional passions which first drew them to work in schools. To watch an enthusiastic, knowledgeable teacher embed through song and repetition an understanding of key letters and sounds in a Year 1 class is to witness enviable practice. Equally impressive is the Year 9 PE teacher, a skilled sportswoman in her own right, enabling ‘sport for all and excellence for some’ in a lesson on badminton forehand and backhand serves. The passion for excellence, rooted in the teacher’s own achievements, is palpable and often thrilling.
  1. Values In a teacher’s every utterance and body language, their values about education and schooling shine through. Values reflect our sense of right and wrong and what we believe to be important to us in life. Join a teacher who is reading ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ with their Year 6 class; see how adroitly they field the most challenging of questions and how they support those pupils struggling emotionally with the novel’s content. Or be party to an A level history seminar wrestling with the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists, where the teacher harnesses his considerable knowledge of Gandhi, Mandela and Guevara to present objective evidence upon which students can make a judgement. A teacher’s unambiguous set of values, embodying integrity and clear conscience, underpin memorable classroom practice.


  1. Fun Teaching is all about communicating to students that great double act: the fun and fundamentals of learning. Watch a gifted teacher of mathematics – with a basket of home-made, practical resources – play around with prime numbers in a Year 5 class; or that same teacher work with his non-specialist colleagues to enable them to plan confidently a session for Year 4 pupils on the Fibonacci Sequence: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34.. Dealing in fun enables students of any age to feel confident about making mistakes, learning from them, and achieving that ‘aha’ moment of breakthrough comprehension. The fundamentals in any subject demand practice, memorisation, repetition. The fun in learning is about teachers and students sharing humour and wit; fun is equally rooted in risk taking and digression.
  1. Creativity The imaginative, thinking out-of-the-box spirit lies deep in great teachers’ hearts and minds. They positively embrace digression and those unplanned moments of epiphany for their students. Focus on a group of Year 8 students doing a fair test in science, when the teacher comes along and introduces a rogue substance to create intellectual confusion. Listen carefully to an EAL teacher with a group of Year 10 boys newly arrived from Serbia, harnessing Google Translate to explore the language of mathematical shapes. Creativity is an element equally at home in physics, geography or drama. The creative teacher has a predictable unpredictability about their person.
  1. Expectations Show me a fine teacher who does not have the highest expectations of those they teach, wherever and whomever they are teaching. When record-breakers in any walk of life achieve a new record, their starting point is an unshakeable belief that they can do it. The skilled teacher knows authoritatively his pupils and can cajole, enthuse, provoke, extend as she judges: we might employ the term ‘differentiation’ here. Observe a passionate teacher of English enable every Year 7 student to grasp the metaphors in Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’; see that teacher do the same for every Year 11 student in her class, climbing inside the complex imagery in Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. What teachers expect is what they get in any classroom, in any subject and in any context.
  1. Empathy The ability to ‘climb inside the learner’s skin’ is a hallmark of those teachers who live long in their pupils’ memories. Great Biology teachers may well have an encyclopaedic knowledge of how an E. coli bacterium performs differently from a sub-atomic particle when observed in a laboratory. The GSCE students are perplexed, and remain so even after the second explanation – until the teacher thinks differently and tries a third explanation which approaches the problem from the learner’s less experienced viewpoint. Breakthrough in understanding comes. Students of any age testify to the fact that experienced teachers can empathise with the learner’s predicament, can ‘connect’ emotionally with them, can see that grey sometimes has its place alongside black and white. Empathy is that vital capacity in a teacher to imagine and understand that the learner may well have a different frame of reference.
  1. Resilience Building learners’ resilience in a contemporary world of ‘snow-plough’ learning devices is not to be under-estimated: ‘What’s a cosine?’ asks the teacher. ‘It’s that button on the calculator,’ comes the flawless answer. As vital as leading lessons with fun is the teacher’s commitment to lead with intrigue: taking pupils out of their comfort zones, making learning difficult and perplexing as the moment arises. What doesn’t kill you intellectually certainly makes you stronger – ask any student of Further Maths. The wise and practised teacher also recognises that their own trade is a demanding one: knowing how to pace oneself daily, weekly, termly is an art and a science in itself. Resilience is two track: one for the pupils’ stamina in new learning; and one for the teachers’ self-preservation and ultimate flourishing. Live to teach another day.
  1. X Factor The cocktail is more or less prepared. Yet its distillation is incomplete without the X factor. No two teachers are the same; they may embody in many ways the nine aspects outlined above. The unashamed joy of the generous teacher is that their own commanding classroom practice is, in the end, a matter of individual taste, tact and style. Each teacher has their own X factor, their unique ingredient of the pedagogical potion. Classroom excellence becomes their habit, and their ‘public’ never forget the magic.

Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust, and is currently writing a book on the practice of great teachers.

‘Self-Improving Schools: the journey to excellence’ edited by Roy Blatchford & Rebecca Clark is published by John Catt Educational in March 2016.

Thoughts on lesson observations #2 | Fanning the glowing embers

When a school hits rock bottom, as mine had a year before I joined, there are two key tasks for the leadership and governors. The first is to rebuild the school: to nurture the phoenix as it slowly rises from the flames so that every child gets the world class education that they deserve.

The second is to show the world that we are being successful.

In the early days, when the embers of growth are barely glowing, the pressure to grade lesson observations is immense. Governors and HMI demand evidence for every small scrap of improvement over extraordinarily short periods of time, despite the overwhelming evidence that deep and embedded school improvement is a slow burn not a flash fire. And to be honest there are times when hard messages are best served by hard evidence.

However, where in a teacher there is potential and sometimes deeply hidden talent, the blunt tool of grading simply slows the growth and undermines the trust that school improvement requires. Indeed Ofsted in 2012 clearly stated that what is needed is clear ‘technical guidance’ for teachers. We know that the most effective way of developing teachers is through well-planned coaching programmes, and that the best teachers are able to review their practice against an agreed set of teaching and learning non-negotiables.

Coaching in its purest sense takes time, time that children in struggling schools simply don’t have. But developmental conversations can save time; they gently fan the glowing embers and build the reliable source of oxygen that reflective teachers need. Time spent in classrooms discussing what is going on, and reviewing the options available, means that teachers respond immediately to feedback, and apply changes with immediate effect. The result is success, promptly shared with other staff and repeated in every classroom.

We need as well to clarify the purpose of shared professional time in class by clarifying how we can best make judgements about the quality of learning in our classrooms.

As Ofsted are in retreat on the issue of lesson observations we might look to them for a lead, and judge learning on all the evidence that we have in front of us. In our school we evaluate the quality of learning by drawing together the information we get from:

  • Regular conversations with the children
  • Rigorous data analysis (of the data that really matters) with the evidence that backs teacher judgement
  • Quality of the work in books (especially that of the most vulnerable and the more able)
  • Structured conversations with teachers about teaching and learning
  • all of the time spent in classes.

We call these our Quality of Learning Judgements and take all the evidence into account so we can give teachers high quality, focused feedback and carefully plan the associated support – based on their efforts over time rather than on the single snapshot of an observed lesson. This builds the trust that deep learning needs, which in turn builds faith in the leaders who are held to account for the improvement in the school.

We have the evidence that our external judges require, and for the first time in years it is rigorous and robust. Most importantly, our teachers listen to what we are saying because they hear the pedagogical discussion instead of the grade that previously managed to switch off the ability to learn and reflect in so many teachers.

So let’s get this right. Let’s make the shift from grading to coaching and bring about the change in judgements that our teachers and children deserve. And prove to the world that we are doing a great job.

Jane Ratcliffe is Headteacher of Millbrook Primary School, Oxfordshire.

Digital literacy

About 20 years ago at an education conference one of the speakers said: “To be literate is to fully inhabit a culture”. At first it felt a little affected or a bit too “luvvie” for my liking. Over time however I have repented. I find it useful rather than struggling with new words like “learnacy”.

The learning needed in an agrarian society is very different from that needed in a modern pervasive technology world, and with it our notion of what it means to be educated changes. With technology advancing on many fronts, constructing a curriculum which embraces technology for learning outcomes rather than for its own sake is a tricky business.

The debates over electronic calculators and arithmetic in schools illustrates how the developments challenge teachers and curriculum setters. Banning calculators doesn’t help, but because it’s easy to “do” arithmetic on a calculator doesn’t mean it’s any easier to understand or learn arithmetic. My stance has always been that it is best to accept the reality of technology advances and to understand the upsides and downsides dispassionately.

With the new ICT curriculum in schools, it is time for a wider think about the world we are preparing our children for and to understand what it means to be “digitally literate”. For me, it’s far more than a narrow focus on coding skills.

All technologies are defined as much by their limits as they are by their capabilities. It can be easy to be seduced by the shiny new toys and lose sight of the bigger picture. Let’s take language learning as one example.

I recently heard a claim re-iterated that I’ve heard for many years: “Advances in real-time language software will remove the need for children to learn foreign languages”.

I have only one problem with that sentence. It’s complete nonsense. If some policy wonk in an era of tight budgets believes this idea, then it could be dangerous. There were recent reports that we don’t have enough diplomats with Russian language to deal with Putin. Should we stop worrying because in 10 years’ time they won’t need to?

Now the advances in language software in the last few years have been impressive, after many years of slow progress. However, there are still important limits and we need to understand them if we are to use these advances to enrich language learning and to avoid dumbing down the curriculum.

Let me illustrate some of the limits which I believe are important in thinking about why and how children should learn foreign languages.

First, language evolves over time.

Take the King James Bible example of “Suffer the little children to come unto me”. If you Google it alongside the religious references it appears in articles about paedophile priests where it is clear that contemporary usage of suffer is meant, not the archaic meaning of permit or allow.

A 20th Century example illustrates a different issue. The standard English translation from the original German aria “Girls were made to love and kiss” from Lehar’s 1925 operetta Paganini explains the tenor’s belief in the title with the following line: “the good Lord made me gay”. To modern ears that’s odd. When the translation was done in the 1930s, I have been assured that it was a good translation of the German meaning.

The choice of words partly is determined by the rhyme way/gay. Some recent singers have replaced this rhyme with law/flaw. While that makes more sense with modern use of the word gay, it is further away from the literal meaning. The German language and the English language have and will continue to evolve in different ways.

Second, language is more than words or sentences.

Some things cannot be translated without significant loss of meaning. Translate into French: “Now is the discount of our winter tents”. Humour, double-entendre and cultural references will remain resistant to language software for some considerable time.

Third, meaning changes in context.

It is important in translating “every couple has its moment in a field” to know if this is Physics or alfresco delights being written about.

Now, in a world where many documents can be translated automatically to a “good” standard, this surely does provide opportunities to engage children in language learning more creatively. However, if homework can be translated into French by Google translate without passing between the ears of the student, I would argue that it is the homework and curriculum that is the problem, not the student.

So, children have no need to learn foreign languages? Well, all they will miss is music, poetry, theatre, humour, culture, history just to name a few fields. Not much to give up?

Adapting a well-known line: “Who knows English, who only English knows”. Now translate that into Greek!

By Chris Yapp (a NET leading Thinker)